Photoshop Techniques: Photo Merge

If you enjoy panoramic views or “wide” shots of beautiful landscapes, you’ll be happy to know that one of the advantages of a telephoto lens (focal lengths greater than 50mm) is the ease in which a panoramic image can be created, like the one above. These are often accomplished with 3 or more vertical or horizontal images taken in sequence (left to right, right to left). 

Multiple shots do not always need to be wide panoramic images. For example, I often merge two vertical images to create a slightly wider one. Above is an example of two images that were merged to create one. The two vertical images have a 2:3 ratio, whereas merging them yielded a 4:5 ratio image. With a focal length of 150mm, I composed the left side of the scene and then panned horizontally to capture the second image. I could get the same composition with one shot by using a wider focal length (like 100mm) and then cropping the image into a 4:5 ratio. Instead, zooming in and taking two shots allowed me to maintain great detail by creating a much higher resolution image.

Creating an image from multiple shots is a 3-step process.

Step one. Compose an image (for more detail on this step, check out my previous blog on working the scene).

Merging high focal length images work best when the landscape you are capturing is a distance away and when there is no foreground close to you. When objects of interest are far away, you can zoom in to capture greater detail. You begin by framing a scene with a shorter focal length while looking through the viewfinder. Once you have a composition in mind, zoom in and compose the left (or right) side of the scene. You may want to position the lens vertically to capture more sky, depending on your scene. That’s the beauty of this, you can play around with your composition by zooming in or zooming out, capturing 2, 3, 4 or more images, and positioning the lens horizontally or vertically. Keep in mind that the more images you merge, the bigger the image file!

Step two. Shoot two or more images.

This is best done with the camera and lens mounted on a level tripod. Decide on a horizontal or vertical orientation and lock the lens into position. With that, it is just a simple matter of taking the first shot from the left or right and then panning over just enough to overlap the previous shot with the next one. Look at the two images above again. I wanted to compose the scene with the highest peaks in the center. I positioned the camera with the highest peaks off-center about 1/3 from the right side. After that shot, I moved the lens horizontally to the right so that the same high peaks were off-centered about 1/3 from the left side. That’s it!

Step Three. Photomerge.

With two images downloaded, the magic begins. I use three Adobe programs, Bridge, Camera Raw and Photoshop CC. Bridge is not an editing program and is basically where I view the images prior to editing. It is here where I select the images to stitch together in Photomerge.

Before I merge the images, I do a little editing in Camera Raw. From Bridge, I select the two images and open them in Camera Raw, as you see on the screenshot above. On the right is the editing panel. To prepare my images for merging, I want to make sure the exposure and white balance are similar between the two shots. Notice the histogram on the top right. Below that is the ‘Basic’ editing panel opened. Here you can see White Balance information in the temperature and tint sliders. I then go to the second image and compare the Histogram and White Balance information. If they are the same, I don’t change anything. If the temperature and/or tint are different (this should be a slight difference only), I change it to match the first image.

The second image was slightly different in temperature, so I changed it to match the first image as you see above. The histogram looked very much like the first image, so I did not alter the exposure. Now, why do I want the histogram and White Balance to be similar? Remember, parts of the images overlap and you want that overlapped areas to look identical. A slight alteration in brightness or color will make the merge go awry. You want continuity and a perfect transition from one shot to the next.

Once I have finished my Camera Raw edits, I press “Done” and send the two images back to Bridge. From here, I can now choose the same two images and load them into Photoshop. The screenshot above shows Bridge. At the top, I click on “Tools”, then “Photoshop” and then “Photomerge”.

This will bring up the Photomerge window, as you see above. You should see the two images selected in the files list. I choose not to check the three options at the bottom of the window. I keep Layout in “Auto”. Click “OK” and now Photoshop will begin its magic. Depending on the file size and number of files, this will take several seconds.

Once Photoshop completes its processing, you will see a screen like the one above. Each image file becomes a layer. And each layer includes a mask. You can see which parts of each image Photoshop chose to mask over. You can also see that some of the parts along the edges are missing. This is almost always inevitable, but the less of it there is, the better. This simply means Photoshop recognized the same scene in each image and was able to successfully merge them.

The next step is to crop the image, either remove the missing parts or replace them with content. For this image, the missing edges were minor, so I simply cropped them out. The screenshot above illustrates this. Remember, I wanted the peak to be in the middle, so the two 2:3 images became one 4:5 image as I envisioned.

Following the crop, I was now ready to begin editing my image and the final version is as you see it above.

Does Lightroom perform merging? Yes, in almost the same way and it is called “Photomerge”. Keep in mind that with Photoshop or Lightroom, a new file is created as the merged file, leaving the original files intact. There are editing programs that are specific to image stitching, but as long as you have Lightroom or Photoshop, I believe you do not need another program. However, if you use Photoshop to merge images captured with a wide-angle lens (24 mm or less), the distortion can be significant and the limits of these programs will be tested. But, since we are working with high focal lengths, distortion is not an issue!

I hope this inspires you to put your telephoto lens to good use outside of wildlife photography. When it comes to landscape photography, the composition possibilities will exponentially increase when you use a telephoto lens and a have the vision to capture sweeping landscapes more intimately.

Thanks for looking on and if you want to learn more about Photoshop layers and masks in Photoshop, need help with your editing workflow or simply want to get started in Photoshop, I offer tutorials at $75/hour. Please check out my website and feel free to contact me at bigcypress214@yahoo.com.